Alban Berg, born Alban Maria Johannes Berg, on February 9 1885, in Vienna, Austria, is the composer who wrote atonal and 12-tone compositions that remained true to late 19th-century Romanticism. He composed orchestral music (including Five Orchestral Songs, 1912), chamber music, songs, and two groundbreaking operas, Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu (1937).
Apart from a few short musical trips abroad and annual summer sojourns in the Austrian Alps, Berg spent his life in the city of his birth. At first, the romantically inclined youth leaned toward a literary career. But, as in most Viennese middle-class homes, music was regularly played in his parents’ house, in keeping with the general musical atmosphere of the city. Encouraged by his father and older brother, Alban Berg began to compose music without benefit of formal instruction. During this period his output consisted of more than 100 songs and piano duets, most of which remain unpublished.
Opera, Blood, and Tears
The Life You Give: Alban Berg
in celebration of his life in music
February 9 at 1pm EST
In September 1904 he met Arnold Schoenberg, an event that decisively influenced his life. The death of Berg’s father in 1900 had left little money for composition lessons, but Schoenberg was quick to recognize Berg’s talent and accepted the young man as a nonpaying pupil. The musical precepts and the human example provided by Schoenberg shaped Berg’s artistic personality as they worked together for the next six years.
In the circle of Schoenberg’s students, Berg presented his first public performance in the fall of 1907: Piano Sonata (published 1908). This was followed by Four Songs (1909) and String Quartet (1910), each strongly influenced by the young composer’s musical gods, Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner.
Having come into a small inheritance, Berg married Helene Nahowski, daughter of a high-ranking Austrian officer, in 1911. The Bergs took an apartment in Vienna, where he settled down to devote the remainder of his life to music, although they participated freely in the intellectual life of the city. Among their closest friends were Adolf Loos, one of the pioneers of modern architecture, and the painter Oskar Kokoschka.
A characteristic of Berg’s creative activity was the slow, often hesitant, manner in which he gave final form to the musical ideas that, for the most part, were the result of sudden inspiration. This fastidious, perfectionist manner of composing explains his relatively small number of works. In 1912 Berg finished his first work since his student days with Schoenberg, Five Orchestral Songs. The inspiration for this composition came from postcard messages addressed to both his friends and his foes by the eccentric Viennese poet Peter Altenberg (pen name of Richard Engländer, who was known as “P.A.”). These sometimes erotic postcard texts were sufficiently nonconformist to prompt Berg to use them as background for even less traditional music than he had composed in the past. But when two of these songs were presented at a concert of the Academic Society for Literature and Music in March 1913, they provoked a near riot, in which performers and audience freely participated.
—- See the lyrics (German and English translation) at the end of this page —-
The genesis of Berg’s first work for the stage was a memorable theatrical experience: the performance of German dramatist Georg Büchner’s (1813–37) Woyzeck (published 1879), a drama built around a poor working man who murders his faithless sweetheart and then commits suicide while their child, unable to comprehend the tragedy, plays nearby. The theme fascinated Berg. But his work on the opera—which, varying the spelling, he would call Wozzeck—was delayed by World War I. During the course of the war, Berg (always in frail health) worked in the War Ministry. When he did begin composition, he was confronted by the gigantic task of compressing 25 scenes into three acts. Although he managed to write the libretto in 1917, he did not begin composing the score until the war was over. He completed the opera in 1921 and dedicated it to Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler, the composer and conductor who had dominated Vienna’s musical life during Berg’s youth.
Wozzeck—perhaps the most frequently performed theatrical work in the atonal idiom—represents Berg’s first attempt to deal with social problems within the framework of opera. From numerous statements he made, it is evident that he intended the opera to portray far more than the tragic fate of the protagonist. He wanted, in fact, to make it symbolic of human existence. Musically, its unity stems from large overall symmetries within which are set traditional forms (such as the passacaglia and sonata), excerpts in popular music style, dense chromaticism (use of notes not belonging to the composition’s key), extreme atonality, and passing approaches to traditional tonality, all of which function to create a work of notable psychological and dramatic impact. Although it antedates Schoenberg’s early 12-tone compositions, the opera also includes a theme using the 12 notes of the chromatic scale.
After 137 rehearsals, Wozzeck was presented in its entirety for the first time on December 14, 1925, at the Berlin State Opera, with Erich Kleiber conducting. Critical response was unrestrained. Typical of the prevailing attitude was the reaction of a reviewer in the Deutsche Zeitung:
As I was leaving the State Opera I had the sensation of having been not in a public theatre but in an insane asylum.… I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community.
But another critic described the music as “drawn from Wozzeck’s poor, worried, inarticulate, chaotic soul. It is a vision in sound.”
Upon completion of Wozzeck, Berg, who had also become an outstanding teacher of composition, turned his attention to chamber music. His Chamber Concerto for violin, piano, and 13 wind instruments was written in 1925, in honour of Schoenberg’s 50th birthday.
Berg searched for a new opera text. He found it in two plays by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864–1918). From Erdgeist (1895; “Earth Spirit”) and Büchse der Pandora (1904; “Pandora’s Box”), he extracted the central figure for his opera Lulu. This work engaged him, with minor interruptions, for the next seven years, and the orchestration of its third act remained incomplete at his death (it was completed by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha and given its premiere in Paris in 1979). Musically complex and highly expressionistic in idiom, Lulu was composed entirely in the 12-tone system.
With the seizure of power by the Nazis in Germany in 1933, Berg lost most of his income. Although, unlike their teacher Schoenberg, Berg and his friend and colleague Anton Webern were of non-Jewish descent, they, with Schoenberg, were regarded as representatives of “degenerate art” and were increasingly excluded from performances in Germany. The meagre response that Berg’s works evoked in Austria caused him particular anguish. Abroad, however, he was considered more and more as the representative Austrian composer, and his works were performed at leading musical festivals.
Berg’s last complete work, the Violin Concerto, originated under unusual circumstances. In 1935 the American violinist Louis Krasner commissioned Berg to compose a violin concerto for him. As usual, Berg procrastinated at first. But after the death of Manon, the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (by then the wife of the architect Walter Gropius), Berg was moved to compose the work as a kind of requiem and to dedicate it to the “memory of an angel”—Manon. Having found his inspiration, Berg worked at fever pitch in the seclusion of his villa in the Austrian province of Carinthia and completed the concerto in six weeks. By the time the work was finally presented by Krasner in Barcelona in April 1936, it had become a requiem not only for Manon Gropius but for Berg as well. One of the major violin concerti of the 20th century, it is a work of highly personal, emotional content achieved through the use of 12-tone and other resources—symbolic as well as musical.
In mid-November 1935 he returned, a sick man, to Vienna. Although his mind was completely absorbed in his desire to finish the opera Lulu, he had to be hospitalized in December with septicemia and, after a deceptive initial improvement, he died suddenly.
A man of strikingly attractive appearance and reserved aristocratic bearing, Berg had also a generous personality that found expression in his correspondence and among his friends. He was an outstanding teacher of composition who encouraged his pupils to undertake significant work of their own. Few honours were accorded Berg in his lifetime; however, within a few years after his death he had become widely recognized as a composer who broke with tradition and mastered a radical technique and yet blended old and new to create, with Schoenberg and Webern, what became known as the 20th-century (or Second) Viennese school.
Berg’s powerful and complex works draw from a broad range of musical resources but are chiefly shaped by a few central techniques: the use of a complex chromatic expressionism, which nearly obscures, yet actually remains within, the framework of traditional tonality; the recasting of classical musical forms with atonal content—i.e., abandoning traditional tonal structure dependent upon a centrally important tone; and a deft handling of the 12-tone approach developed by Schoenberg as a method of structuring atonal music. Berg dealt with the new medium so skillfully that the classical heritage of his compositions is not obliterated, thus justifying the term frequently applied to him: the “classicist of modern music.”
By Willi Reich / Source: Britannica
“Fünf Orchesterlieder” / “Fife Orchestral Songs”
Seele, wie bist du schöner, tiefer, nach Schneestürmen.
Auch du hast sie, gleich der Natur.
Und über beiden liegt noch ein trüber Hauch,
eh’ das Gewölk sich verzog!
Sahst du nach dem Gewitterregen den Wald?
Alles rastet, blinkt und ist schöner als zuvor.
Siehe, Fraue, auch du brauchst Gewitterregen!
3. Über die Grenzen des All
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus;
Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus!
Leben und Traum vom Leben, plötzlich ist alles aus – – -.
Über die Grenzen des All blickst du noch sinnend hinaus!
4. Nichts is gekommen
Nichts ist gekommen, nichts wird kommen für meine Seele.
Ich habe gewartet, gewartet, oh – gewartet!
Die Tage werden dahinschleichen, und umsonst wehen
meine aschblonden seidenen Haare um mein bleiches Antlitz!
5. Hier ist Friede
Hier ist Friede. Hier weine ich mich aus über alles!
Hier löst sich mein unfaßbares, unermeßliches Leid,
das mir die Seele verbrennt …
Siehe, hier sind keine Menschen, keine Ansiedlungen.
Hier ist Friede! Hier tropft Schnee leise in Wasserlachen …
Soul, you’re more beautiful, deeper, after snowstorms.
Like Nature, you have storms, too.
And over both still lie a melancholy air
like clouds that disperse but slowly.
Have you seen the woods after rainstorms?
Language: English after the German (Deutsch)
Have you seen the woods after rainstorms?
Everything reposes, gleams and is lovelier than before
See, Women, rainstorms are necessary too.
3.Beyond the borders of all we know
Beyond the borders of all we know, you ponder thoughtfully,
You’d never worry about hearth and home.
Yet Life, and the dream of life – it can suddenly vanish.
Beyond the borders of all we know, you ponder thoughtfully.
4. Nothing Comes
Nothing comes, nothing will ever come for my Soul.
I have waited, waited, oh waited !
The days are creeping past, they flutter away.
My ashblond silken hair blows pointlessly over my sallow face.
5. Here is Peace
Here’s Peace. Here I can cry my heart out.
Here the incomprehensible immense pain
that burns my soul can find release.
See, here there are no people, no settlements.
Here’s Peace! Here the snow falls gently into flowing water.
—- Translation from German to English copyright © by Anne Ozorio
Opera in three acts
Music, Alban Berg
Libretto, Alban Berg
The soldier Wozzeck is shaving the Captain. The officer urges him to work more slowly, then tells him that he is a good man but lacks morality because he has an illegitimate child. Wozzeck replies that virtue is a luxury not meant for the poor.
Wozzeck and a fellow soldier, Andres, are cutting firewood in the fields. Wozzeck is frightened by visions: he hears noises and imagines the sinking sun as a fire setting the earth aflame. Then suddenly all is quiet.
Marie, the mother of Wozzeck’s child, and her neighbor Margret watch a military band pass by outside their window. Marie admires the handsome Drum Major and Margret mocks her. Alone with her young son, Marie sings him a lullaby. Wozzeck arrives and tells her about his visions, which he sees as an omen of evil things to come. Marie tries to comfort him, but he rushes off to the barracks without looking at his son. Overwhelmed by her own fears, Marie runs out of the room, leaving the child.
Wozzeck visits the Doctor, who pays him for use in his pseudo-scientific research. Full of self-delusion about making a grand scientific discovery, the Doctor asks Wozzeck about his diet. Wozzeck again brings up his visions, which the doctor dismisses as mere imagination.
On the street before her door, the Drum Major makes advances toward Marie.
She resists at first, then gives in to him.
Marie is admiring the earrings the Drum Major has given her. When Wozzeck enters, she tries to hide them, then claims she found them in the street. Wozzeck is suspicious. He gives her the money he has earned and leaves. Marie is overwhelmed by remorse.
The Captain and the Doctor meet in the street and talk morbidly of sickness and death. When Wozzeck passes by, they taunt him with allusions to Marie’s infidelity. Shocked, Wozzeck asks them not to make fun of the one thing in the world that is his. Then he rushes off.
Wozzeck confronts Marie with his suspicions and tries to force her to confess. He is about to hit her but she remains defiant, telling him that she’d rather have a knife in her belly than his hand on her.
Two drunken apprentices amuse the crowd in a beer garden. Wozzeck enters and sees Marie and the Drum Major on the dance floor. A fool approaches Wozzeck and tells him he smells blood. Wozzeck has a vision of people waltzing while covered with blood.
The same evening in the barracks, Wozzeck wakes to nightmarish memories of what happened in the beer garden. The Drum Major enters, drunk, and boasts about his conquest. The two men fight and Wozzeck is knocked down.
Alone with her child, Marie reads from the Bible, first about the adulteress who was forgiven, then about Mary Magdalene. She begs God for mercy.
Marie and Wozzeck are walking together near a pond. Marie wants to hurry back to town, but Wozzeck makes her sit with him. He kisses her and makes ironic remarks about her fidelity. When she attempts to escape, he draws a knife and kills her.
Wozzeck is drinking in a tavern, shouting wildly, and dancing with Margret. When she notices blood on his arm, he is unable to explain where it has come from and rushes out.
At the pond, Wozzeck searches for the knife and throws it into the water. Suddenly he imagines that the moon will reveal his crime. He wades farther into the water to hide the knife in a safer place and to wash the blood off his hands. The Doctor and Captain, passing by, hear him drown.
Neighbor children playing in the street tell Marie’s son that his mother is dead. He does not understand and keeps singing and playing.
Source: Metropolitan Opera